By Robert Kahn
Los Angeles’ city attorney sued The Weather Channel on behalf of the people of California on Thursday, claiming it fraudulently and deceptively uses its Weather Channel App “to amass its users’ private, personal geolocation data,” not, as advertised — “to provide them with ‘personalized local weather data’” — but to monetize the information by selling it to third parties.
LA City Attorney Michael Feuer asked the superior court to enjoin the deceptive and unfair business practices, and fine the company $2,500 for each violation, doubled if committed against elderly or disabled people.
Defendant TWC Product and Technology LLC owns and operates The Weather Channel App, which can be downloaded on Apple and Android products. TWC is a subsidiary of IBM. It claims 45 million monthly users worldwide, though the complaint does not say how many of those are in California. Should 1 million Californians use the app, Feuer’s demand of $2,500 per violation amounts to a demand for a fine of at least $2.5 billion.
The lawsuit was filed electronically Thursday, but not time-stamped under L.A. Superior Court’s new mandatory e-filing system. It became available to Courthouse News subscribers at 12:04 a.m. Friday. TWC and Feuer’s office could not be reached for comment before dawn Friday.
The 15-page complaint accuses TWC of violating California’s Unfair Competition Law through “fraudulent and deceptive business acts and practices,” primarily by failing to disclose the uses to which it put its customers’ personal information.
Feuer told reporters Friday that the case represents a defense of Americans’ privacy in a digital age where their location data is frequently stored and shared without prior knowledge.
“Think of how Orwellian it feels that a private company is tracking your location information everywhere and every day,” Feuer said. “If the cost of a weather forecast will be the sacrifice of deeply private information–like precisely where we are, day and night—it must be clear, in advance.”
Feuer sums it up in the first paragraph of the complaint: “For years, TWC as deceptively used its Weather Channel App to amass its users’ private, personal geolocation data — tracking minute details about its users’ locations throughout the day and night, all the while leading users to believe that their data will only be sued to provide them with ‘personalized local weather data, alerts and forecasts.’ TWC has then profited from that data, using it and monetizing it for purposes entirely unrelated to weather or the Weather Channel App. In fact, unbeknownst to its users, TWC’s core business is amassing and profiting from user location data. Indeed, it has been reported that TWC considers itself ‘a location data company powered by weather.’”
That statement is attributed to an Oct. 13, 2016 post by Stephanie Miles, on streetfightmag.com. Citing an Oct. 18, 2016 post by Michelle Manafy on another blog, digitalcontentnext.org, the complaint states: “As the general manager of TWC’s Consumer Division admitted, ‘(i)f a consumer is using your product and says, ‘Hey, wait a minute, why do they want to know where I am?’ … you are going to have some problems.”
The Weather Channel app was the most downloaded weather app in the world between 2014 to 2018, with an average of 45 million monthly users. With 1 billion pieces of location data collected per week, the app had the largest set of location data in the world.
Feuer said he did not know how many California residents are app users.
The cache of geolocation data formed the core of the company’s business model; providing users with real-time weather information and forecasts based on their location. But Feuer said TWC “elevates corporate profits over users’ privacy” by sharing that data with third-party companies, including advertisers.
Feuer seeks the injunction and penalties “to punish TWC for its egregious conduct and to deter TWC from engaging in the same or similar conduct in the future.”
TWC and parent company IBM should explain to users, in plain language, that their information is being tracked and shared with others perhaps all the time, Feuer said.
After a New York Times story exposed the practices of TWC and other tech companies sharing app users’ location data, IBM stopped sharing the data with hedge funds. But Feuer said the company has yet to correct the practices at the heart of the lawsuit.